I pull off the highway, down an exit ramp and into the parking lot of an Applebee’s. I’ve never eaten at an Applebee’s, but today I’m going to. In the parking lot there is a fox, rusty orange with a silver belly, darting back and forth across the asphalt like it just caught its wife cheating.
I’ve been trying to tell my father his idea is a bad one for the last several months, and today I did. I told him, I said, “You won’t make any money in that location with a ham-and-egg restaurant. You could pull off something more fancy maybe, make the space something of a destination for customers. But a down-market diner in an underdeveloped suburb? And either way, you’re almost 70. It’ll brutalize you. You can’t tell me you really want to be flipping burgers and scrambling eggs and frying bacon at 5:00 in the morning. Because that’s what you’ll be doing. And you’ll be doing it for almost no return on your money, if you’re lucky enough to make any profit at all.”
“I don’t mind getting up early, and I plan on keeping the staff small,” he said, “and I plan on closing around 8 at night.”
“Ok,” I said. “So you think you can make this work closing at 8, and will you be serving liquor?”
“I can make it work closing at eight. And no, I’m not serving liquor.”
“You know what that’s like, it’s like running a grocery store and not carrying turkeys at Thanksgiving. It borders on negligent. How about chain restaurants? You could open an Applebee’s franchise with a partner, then sell your share to him in a couple of years when you get sick of the idea. That’s the kind of clientele you’re talking about, and the margins will be higher than a ham-and-egg restaurant where old ladies sit over a single cup of coffee for three hours, nibbling on a, a soggy toast crust.”
“The food tastes like shit at those places,” he said. “You ever eaten at an Applebee’s? The burgers taste like sawdust. The specials, they’re pathetic.” My father kept his eyes down.
“Chain restaurants aren’t as bad as you think,” I said. “As for the specials, they’re constantly monitoring the performance of the menu and making adjustments, getting rid of the dogs.”
“It’s a joke. I could never open one of those places. They have no focus on quality.”
“At least it’s a recognizable brand with predictable cash flow to its franchises. I know this stuff, this is what I do.”
“You work for a trade journal,” said my father. “You don’t run a restaurant, you don’t have to be there and look at the food going out to the dining room.”
My father is a man who, for the last 10 years, has worked as a meat purveyor and packager. Before his move into “big meat,” as he calls it, he owned a small pork store. After 30 years in operation the pork store was put out of business by the local Stop & Shop. Truly, his sausages had been tremendous, but not so tremendous as to save him from the market.
At the end of our conversation I lost it. I said, “You’re screwed, if you sink all of your money into this, you’re in deeper trouble than you can imagine, because in three years you’ll need a hip replacement, you’ll have to close for months, you’ll have no cash flow, you’ll be ruined. Done. Over. You’ll lose everything. You’re being stupid. You can’t afford to make this mistake.”
Here I am at Applebee’s. It’s true, I’ve written about them for years, but I’ve never eaten at one. Eating Good in the Neighborhood. My mother always told me you don’t do things good, you do them well. Eating well in the Place You Dwell. It’s not the best slogan in the chain restaurant industry, but it’s not the worst either. As for the name, it’s a good name for such a large brand. It’s certainly better than Fuddruckers.
A hostess seats me in a green-and-red faux leather booth. She is young and pretty, and I’m sure she won’t be working at Applebee’s for long. This isn’t a dig on the business. They have high turnover, it’s a fact and a problem. But what no one understands about these places—the trinket-shit interior, the uniformed, uninformed wait staff, the branded fajita pans that say Applebee’s in raised cast iron—is that, not only are chain restaurants masters of replication, that much is clear to most people. But really, what they do better than anything, better than most businesses anywhere, is they do the most with the least. That’s what it’s all about. Squeezing the maximum amount of money out of the cheapest ingredients and fixed costs that they can. They can really manage. It’s a beautiful thing.
I’ve decided on a burger with curly fries, not the most exciting option, but just perusing the menu is like a wild dive into consumer psychology. Menu Mix is a science. Someone who should have spent more time thinking and less time talking once tried to tell me that Menu Mix is an art, and I told him that was bullshit then asked him why he would say something like that.
After I give her my order the waitress says thanks and walks away to put it in the pos system (Applebee’s uses proprietary software built in-house—it’s expensive, but for as many units as they have, it’s the best option.) The waitress brings me a Diet Coke in a big Applebee’s stamped glass that is full of ice, and I take a sip through the straw after I remove the top of its wrapper.
Suddenly I see an orange streak close in on me and I feel a wet grip on my forearm. It’s the fox, sinking its teeth into the forearm muscle. Its jaws clamp down.
“Ah,” I yell, “Ah, waitress!” But she is at the bar filling the drink order for the table two tables away, and she doesn’t hear me. That table sees me though. It’s a father a mother and their child. I partially extend my arm to the side and the fox dangles from it, biting me harder, its black legs scrambling in the air. I pull my arm back and then slap the fox in the face. it grunts, drool laced with my blood streaming from the corners of its mouth. I think I am in trouble. I try flexing my arm but this hurts too much. Am I in shock? If I’m in shock, it shouldn’t hurt, but what should I do? The table is set, but the knife, fork and spoon are wrapped in a napkin and sealed with a small band made of paper. Worse, the napkin is tucked so as to contain all the silverware. I pick the small package up with my free hand and with my mouth attempt to tear the napkin open. It gives, and out fall the fork and knife onto the floor. I can’t bend down because of the fox on my arm, so the only utensil I have is a spoon. The booth I’m in was originally set for two but the waitress took the other place setting when I gave her my order. God damn standardized practices. They probably figure that a diner dining alone and sitting across from a empty place setting will be reminded that they are dining alone and feel depressed. If this is true, I am uncertain if they are actually doing themselves a service by removing the reminder. Many people eat more when they are depressed, or so I have been informed by several studies done at Cornell.
“Help,” I yell. “A fox. A fox!”
The fox lets a out a low growl in assent with my identification. Up close the black whiskers that extend from its white and orange muzzle vibrate slightly with the intensity of flexed muscles. I’ve seen this kind of intensity on television during the World’s Strongest Man competition, but never applied to me.
Now I’m feeling serious physical pain, rivulets of agony flow throughout my arm and up into my shoulder, and suddenly I’m flooded with remorse for today’s conversation with my father. I should have just told him something else. I should have tried to put the conversation off until later. But damn it, he kept at me about buying that shithole restaurant, what he was going to do, how it would work. Sometimes you can only take so much when someone is talking to you, and they’re telling you something that is clearly wrong. I mean, a man of almost 70 deciding to put all his money into a run-down restaurant that is at best a gamble and at worst a flat-out money pit, when there are many other things he could be doing. But he wouldn’t listen to me. He said, “Look, I see your point but I just don’t think you’re correct.”
“Please,” I said, “tell me, how am I not correct? How? Just prove it to me, prove that I’m flat out wrong and I’ll say, ‘You know what dad, you’re right and I’m wrong.’ I’m not trying to prove you wrong, I’m trying to help. I see this stuff all
“You’ve never run a restaurant,” he said.
“I study them,” I said.
“It’s not the same thing.”
“So you think I don’t have anything to offer on this issue? That I’ve seen some stuff but I’ve just misjudged it, my judgment is flawed, is that it, so I can’t offer you good advice as to why not to throw your money away?”
After this thought my feeling of remorse is gone.
The waitress has finally seen me, accessorized by the fox and ribbons of my own blood.
“Oh my god, I’ll go and get the manager,” she says.
I don’t have confidence the manager will be prepared for this situation, no matter how good her training. I look at the fox. Why is it biting me? I wonder. Did I do something particularly un-foxworthy? Do I smell like the one who was banging the fox’s wife? And why won’t it let go? This fox came in from the parking lot, where yes, it seemed disturbed, and ran to my table and attached itself to my arm. Now it’s scratching at my ribs with its paws. I can smell the animal. It smells like
The bartender is standing next to me. “I’m going to squeeze its neck, to try to choke it,” he says, and he wraps both his hands around the neck of the fox and squeezes. I’m reassured that someone is trying to help. He squeezes the fox to no avail. In fact, the more he squeezes the harder the fox bites, breathing gamey fox breath in my direction through its drippy, wet nose. Then the fox begins scratching at the hands around his neck, looses a little of the bartender’s blood, and gets him to let go.
“I’m sorry,” says the bartender. “Let me get some towels, then I can rechoke him.”
“No,” says the waitress who is now standing the next to the bartender, “don’t choke it, it’s afraid, it’s hangin’ on because it’s afraid.”
“How the hell can we unafraid it?” asks someone in the crowd.
“Dump ice water on it,” someone else says.
By now the entire wait staff surrounds me. The family two tables away is standing, watching the scene. Onlookers from the bar and tables in other parts of the restaurant have come too. One of the cooks (the kitchen has emptied to watch the spectacle) yells that animal control is on its way, but I don’t know exactly what that means—does animal control have people on call for things like this? I suppose they do. They certainly should. They’re animal control.
We all stare at the fox and the fox stares at me. Its small black pupils have expanded in the artificial light, leaving only a thin circle of orange iris that trembles as it clenches its body.
Something in my arm is starting to throb and the speed of blood loss has picked up. I look at the fox, it has scrunched its eyes shut. I yell to the kitchen guy, “Cook, you have a knife I could use?” The manager suggests that we take the scene outside.
Actually, what she says is, “If you’re going to cut its head off, let’s get you outside, because there is going to be a lot of blood.”
“Don’t cut its head off,” says the waitress. “It’s just afraid, just take it outside.” The cook goes back to the kitchen to get a knife. The bartender throws a towel over the fox’s legs and feet, and manages to grasp both front and hind legs. Up we go, moving slowly in a group led by the manager, to the door. The cook joins us by the door brandishing what looks to be a small scimitar, and together, we shuffle through.
We are in the parking lot.
“Spread out,” says the manager. “Everyone spread out.”
“No,” says the cook, “everyone else go back inside, in case it gets loose. The bartender and I will stay out here and take care of it.”
And everyone else runs inside to press their noses against the door and window glass. I say to the bartender, “Let’s put this thing on the ground, and then take care of it. With you holding it up it’s struggling and it hurts like hell.” I start to slowly sit down and the bartender follows me, bending over to ease the fox’s legs towards the ground. The fox is panting wildly and its chest is moving up and down rapidly. I can feel its breaths as they cascade down my arm and onto my hand. It’s not a big animal but it has strong jaws. I don’t understand why it won’t let go. Let go, I think, or this guy is going to cut your head off…
I try petting it. For what feels like five minutes I pet it, barely moving. My blood is making a small pool on
“What do you want us to do?” asks the cook. “You look like shit, you’re pale. Almost blue. I’m going to take care of it.” He waves the scimitar through the air.
“Just give it a minute,” I say, and I lie down fully on the pavement, trying to relax my body. My arm is cold and feels like it’s swollen to three times its normal size. Every once in a while I think someone is flicking my nerves with a fingernail. The fox growls quietly. “Keep me from getting run over, please,” I say, fighting the urge to throw up.
“Somebody should tell animal control to hurry up,” says the cook. The fox lets go of my arm and runs off.
A day later I get a call from animal control. They tell me they captured the fox using a baited rabbit carcass. They knew it was the right fox because it still had my blood on its fur. Further, they put it down and tested for rabies. The test was negative. I told them I’d gone for a rabies shot
“I was worried it would be a bunch of needles in my stomach, but it was just a big shot in my arm.”
“It’s the newer method,” says animal control. “Much less painful.”
“Yeah,” I say, adding, “I’m glad it didn’t have rabies. You’re sure, right?”
“Yes,” says animal control. “We’re sure. The tests are conclusive.”
“Huh, I wonder why it attacked me then, I mean, if it didn’t have rabies. It just ran into a restaurant and attacked me, and dug its teeth into my arm.”
“Well,” says animal control, “there could be a lot of reasons, but we won’t ever know I think.”
“I wonder if there was any reason at all.”
“It’s an animal,” says animal control, “so, I wouldn’t take it personally.”
I can’t tell if this is supposed to be funny, but just in case it is, I laugh a little.